The beginning of a beginning is often hard to see. We don’t realize it’s come to pass until we spot it behind us, waving goodbye. We’re past the beginning at that point, its lessons only recognized through the mercy of hindsight.
The following is an account of a beginning, Dad. I made these notes as the events unfolded. They aren’t pretty, weren’t written with an eye toward prose or style or anything of the like. They are the beginning of a beginning, and nothing more.
They are the beginning of our goodbye.
Sunday, March 19
I receive word from G at 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 19. Dad is in Allegheny General. Bad stroke. Still waiting to hear back from dr.
I’m at a writing retreat in the mountains of Tennessee, so I stand in the cold with my sweater wrapped around me and dial the hospital’s NeuroICU, but the doctor isn’t there and the nurse prefers to give updates through only one family member.
There is no news the rest of the night. I sit among friends and think, “We’ve done this before. Maybe your recovery will be slower, but we can do this. We’ve done it once, and we can do it again.” I wonder if you’ll forget me again. I wonder if I’ll have to introduce myself to you once more.
The next morning, I start the eight-hour drive to Pittsburgh. The entire drive, I think, “Remember to ask whether he’s breathing on his own. What are his chances of worsening aphasia? We’ll need to arrange physical therapy.”
G calls while I’m somewhere in the Tennessee mountains. We agree that assisting living will be a must going forward. No debate, Dad. We got lucky with your first recovery, and we won’t be with this one. It’ll take work, but we’ve done it before. We can help you through it again.
All through the mountains, I drive. Past farmland and rolling pastures, thick swaths of trees and craggy rock. I climb skyward, and I wait to cry.
It’s 7 o’clock when I arrive in Pittsburgh. I drop my car off at my room and take a cab to the hospital so I won’t have to worry with parking. When I arrive, it’s like a strange déjà vu. There is the lobby and the cafeteria, the sterile smell of life and its germs wiped clean from every surface, the gentle ding of the elevators. I know which floor to go to, and I go without thinking.
Seven floors up, I lift the phone in the hall and ask the receptionist if I can see you. But visiting hours aren’t until 9 p.m. I go to the waiting room to find that the couch I’d slept on four years ago is gone. In its place is a row of metal chairs with the thinnest padding I’ve ever seen. I curl myself into one and watch the door, waiting for something even I don’t know. I must look horrible, because the man next to me gets up, moves a coffee table in front of me, and says, “Here. Put your feet up on this.”
His wife asks if I have a place to stay. I tell them about the AirB&B room B rented for me while I was on the road. They ask if I’ve driven, if I know my way around, if I am alone.
“Right now,” I say. “But others are coming.”
I sit in the chair with my feet on the table until 9. Then I get to see you.
It isn’t like the first stroke. When I saw you after the first stroke, you had fallen down the stairs and cut your head. There was a deep gash that ran along your forehead. It had already bruised purple and red. You couldn’t breathe on your own. A machine blipped out your breaths, forced your chest to rise and fall, steady as a drum. Back then, the nurse had spent an hour, maybe longer, talking me through all the various complications you were experiencing and how the team of doctors planned to address them. This is what I anticipate as I walk through the pale lights down the familiar hallway to your room. But this is not what I find.
You look so normal, Dad. So very ordinary. You don’t have a cut on your head or a tube down your throat. You breathe on your own. You are just as restless as you were before, moving your arms and legs in the bed and pulling against the restraints, but the moment I see you, my heart buoys. I rush to pull on the plastic gown and gloves so I can enter the room and tell you I’m here. I don’t need a nurse to tell me to do it, because I recognize the note taped to your door from your last stay in the NeuroICU, and I know what it means. I yank on the gown and hurry to your bedside, and it’s all so familiar and odd and comforting somehow, not to have so many machines hooked up to you. I go to your bedside and I touch your arm and I say, “I’m here, Dad. It’s Ash. I’m here.”
When the nurse comes in, I know. The way she walks in is so different than the last time. The way she holds her hands in front of her and hesitates before she speaks. The way she says, “So, have you spoke with anyone about … him?”
“No. I haven’t seen a doctor. Can you tell me what we’re doing for him? He’s breathing on his own, so that’s good. What else is going on?”
“We’re making him comfortable,” she says. “They think, maybe a week? Palliative care has been called.” Then, gently, “Do you know what that means?”
There isn’t anything more to say. I think I might go numb. There isn’t a very good word for this feeling.
I tell you about your room. Describe how pretty the view is and ask you to be still and rest. And while I try to find the strength to keep talking, you say, “Ashley.”
You grimace. “Ashley.”
I hold your arm a bit firmer. “I’m here, Dad. I’m here. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”
You shake your head, grimacing. The corners of your eyes crease.
“Are you in pain?” I ask.
You nod. A tear slips from your eye. I wipe it with a gloved finger as gently as I can.
“Okay, we’ll get you something for pain, okay? I’ll be right back.”
I rush from the room to the nurse’s station and ask her if we can give you anything for pain. She looks at me quizzically.
“He spoke to me,” I explain. “He told me he’s in pain.”
She frowns and examines your chart. “He hasn’t been cognizant all day.”
“He said my name. Twice. And I asked him if he was in pain and he nodded. Can we give him anything?”
I can tell that she doubts whether you are cognizant enough to really communicate with me. For the briefest of seconds, I want to scream. To scream that I know you spoke to me and you heard me and you are there, but I don’t have to. She agrees.
I go back to your bed and whisper to you for another hour, telling you it’ll be okay, that we’ll help you, to rest and rest and rest, that I’m here and I won’t leave and everything will be okay.
I lie, Dad. Because I don’t have the strength to tell you the truth.
It’s 11 p.m. when I get back to my room. Everyone is up around me. It’s too noisy to sleep, and it doesn’t make much difference. I lie in the bed in the dark and try to imagine what I’ll do tomorrow. How I remember from last time that the doctors do their rounds first thing, and I need to be there to speak with them. I need to ask them how we can make you comfortable and what they’re doing for you, and then I need to get on my phone and pass on whatever news they tell me to Mom and C and J and G.
I do not sleep. By the time the sun cuts through the window, I am up and dressed. My lips are swollen and have broken out with sores, either from stress or lack of sleep or something else. They must burn while I brush my teeth, but I can’t feel it. All I feel is the tightness in my chest, and all I think is that I must not cry in front of you.
When I arrive at the hospital, I go straight to your room. As I begin to pull on the plastic gown, I hear the doctor inside your room, on speaker phone with someone. I begin to rush, trying not to rip the plastic.
“So, that is not good,” the doctor says.
The voice comes over the phone into the room. “Fuck.”
“Is that J?” I ask from the doorway as I yank on my gloves. The doctor and nurse look up. “That’s my brother. I can help you. What’s going on?”
At that moment, J’s phone drops the call. The doctor gestures to the hallway. “Let’s go talk in here.”
Wait, I haven’t said good morning, I almost say. Instead I glance at you, and follow him into a small room.
What happens in the room is this.
The doctor asks me what I know already, and I say, “Nothing.”
The doctor explains that your CAT scan from this morning is much worse. The bleeding in your brain is not improving. In fact, it’s worsening. At this rate, he believes you only have a few days.
A week, I want to say. We’re supposed to have a week.
The doctor needs to know what your feelings are on these types of situations, and he cannot hear it from me. I am not legally yours. “I know.” I have to whisper. I’m not supposed to cry. “It was like that last time.”
It’s decided he’ll call J back on my phone. We put J on speakerphone and lay the phone on the table between us. When the doctor asks J what your feelings are on living on machines versus passing naturally, I hold my breath.
How cruel, that I am here and unable to help you. How cruel, that I have already told the doctor this truth and it somehow holds no value.
But I knew it would be like this. I prepared myself for it. So, when the doctor asks J his questions, I hold my breath and pray J says the same things I have.
And when he does, I feel like a tremendous gift has been given to you, Dad. I couldn’t help you. I could only sit here and hold you and comfort you, but I could not save you from your pain. Only your biological children could do that.
When J tells the doctor that you would never want to live on machines, the doctor makes a note on his chart. When the call ends a few minutes later, he looks at me and says, “We’ll change our care plan now, and make him comfortable.”
He pauses. “You’re doing the right thing.”
When he shakes my hand, I start to cry.
Is there a “right thing” when your father’s life is involved? I wonder about this as I sit beside you the rest of the day. You’re restless, moving your arms, trying to reach your head, and shifting your legs, bending your knees, crossing your feet. You are in pain.
But the doctors act quickly now. They come in and take away the tube that had been draining the blood from your brain. They remove the tube in your nose. They remove the restraints from your ankles and wrists. They give you a dose of morphine.
You have not been cognizant today, but I sit with you, and I whisper to you, and I rub your arm and try to tell you things that will make you calm. When family calls for updates, I step away from your bed and try to keep my voice low when I relay that something unspoken has stolen a few of your days from us. I don’t want you to hear. I refuse to believe that somewhere inside, you cannot hear me. They said you couldn’t hear me yesterday either, and you did.
Perhaps our days aren’t lost yet, Dad. Perhaps they will be wrong again.
At noon, your neighbors come by to see you. I’d met them the previous night right before I left, when they stopped by to check on you. They are kind people, maybe in their sixties, with a love of jazz and art. I could see immediately why you like them. One of them sang a few bars from a Tony Bennett song to you.
Today, they stand beside your bed and ask me if you’ve been cognizant. I have to say no, but I also say they should still speak to you. They offer to stay with you while I get something to eat. I don’t tell them that I haven’t been hungry in a day, or that retracing my steps from four years ago makes me nauseated. Instead I smile and go to the elevator and down to the cafeteria, get an apple and a green tea and sit at a table in the sun and wonder how long I have to stay here before it’s acceptable for me to go back to your bedside. I eat half the apple and decide that’s long enough.
At 12:30, I am alone with you again. I watch the monitor and try to figure out what all the data mean. Some numbers rise and some numbers fall, and I don’t want to look away from the screen to research it on my phone. Soon, a nurse comes in, and I glance at the monitor and ask, “What does the pink number mean?”
She looks up at the screen. Her hand rises to the edge of the monitor, and she slowly turns it away from me. Then she tries to smile. “It’s probably not a good idea to look at that.”
I wonder if she realizes, Dad, that her answer has told me more than any number could.
You are still restless, so they come back. They give you a morphine dose, then a drip. It works quickly, and after a minute, you are calm. I think, maybe, you begin to sleep.
I cannot see the data now, Dad. There is only so much I can tell you, and I don’t want to make you sad. I opt to stay in neutral territory, reiterating how kind your doctors are and how good you are doing at staying still and resting, how nice a view your room has and how fancy the hospital is. I tell you I’m here and you can trust me to care for you and you can rest. Just rest.
But I cannot see the numbers and I need something, so I start to count your breaths.
A few days. I will do this for a few days. I will count your breaths and whisper calming words to you, and it will be okay.
When I cry, I try to do it silently, so you don’t hear.
Soon, another nurse comes in. She looks at the monitor and then at me. Her expression is kind. “He probably only has a few hours now.”
I flinch. “But we had a few days. Is something wrong?”
“His oxygen level is really low.”
“What is it?”
“Yours and mine are at 90.”
I stare at the back of the monitor. I feel as if it’s stolen your days from you. I cannot explain it. How could they have evaporated over the course of a few hours?
When I look back, the nurse is gone. I send messages to family and friends.
Oxygen levels very low. Hours now.
I go back to counting your breaths. I wish I could remember where I’d been before. Every one feels precious now.
At 1, two neurosurgeons come to see you. They look at the chart and examine the monitor, and tell me they’re going to give you something to help with your breathing. It’s been rough for a while now, Dad, a kind of pattern I’d memorized. A sharp breath in—a gasp—then 30 seconds until the next. Then 2 seconds. Then 45. Then 3. Then 30. And so on.
“Will this help him breathe better?” I ask.
“It’ll make it less work. The part of his brain that takes care of that … there’s too much bleeding there.”
“That’s why he’s taking breaths like that.”
“Yes. This’ll help him feel better when he breaths. Is that okay?”
“Yes. Anything to help with the pain.”
From that point on, you are comfortable. A feeling seeps over me. I know it will happen soon. I tell myself not to know it. But I cannot.
I count, and I count, and I count. And when I realize I’ve stopped talking, I whisper something else to you. I’m here. I’m here. It’s Ash. Dad? It’s Ash. I’m here.
I am alone, but you are not. I am here.
Two exhales stand out. They come from deep, deep down, and they sound calm, relieved almost, as they exit your lips. They frighten me.
I know it is your final breath because my count goes over a minute. When it reaches 60 seconds, I stop counting your breaths. Instead, I watch a spot in the crook of your neck where a vein pulses in time with your heart. I count the seconds and I watch the spot on your neck as it fades and fades and fades and fades, a small, quiet wave that cannot reach the shore.
I am watching when it stops. And when it does not begin again.
I only realize I am still counting when the machines go off. It takes three minutes before they scream. A nurse comes in and shuts them off. She meets my gaze. “I know,” she whispers.
But you don’t, I want to say. It happened three minutes ago. I know. I was counting. She pulls the sheet to cover the doorway, and once again, we are alone together.
I sit with you for an hour before anyone comes. I keep thinking I see your chest rise again, and for a split second, I think, Oh! I’ve miscounted! It was my fault! Silly me, thinking all that time had passed, when it was only a breath. But then I remember that the nurse has already come and the silence in the room is because the machines are no longer turned on and the muffled sound is me. I cry quietly, because there are other patients on this floor, and I don’t want to scare them.
After an hour, G arrives with Gl, your first wife. Gl has dementia and has never really acknowledged me. She once told you that she didn’t understand why you bothered keeping in touch me because I wasn’t your real daughter. But today, she walks up and hugs me.
“Thank you,” she whispers, her voice thin and delicate. She does not cry. She asks the priest who arrives at the same time she does if he will pray for God to give you back. The priest is shocked, and says, “Gl, why would I ask for that, when he is in Heaven?”
After a while, they leave, and once again, it is you and me, Dad. It has been almost two hours since you passed, and I do not understand what I’m supposed to do. I cannot leave you here—but you aren’t here anymore.
The nurse asks me where you’re going, and I have no idea what she means. She explains that someone must do something with your body, and something inside me flinches at that word. But they need me to decide. They need direction.
“I’ve never done this,” I say.
They tell me to ask the church, so I call them from beside you and I whisper into the phone that I don’t know what to do. They give me the number of a funeral home. I make the call. Again I explain that I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what to do, but I do things anyway, because they must be done, and people are waiting.
Sometime after 3, I’m able to walk away. Before I go, a nurse hands me two clear plastic bags. Your things. A pair of jeans and a belt and shoes and a pocket knife and a cell phone and a wallet. I carry you in my arms as I get into the elevator. The woman beside me sees the bags and says, “Oh.” Then she stares at the floor.
I get lost in the hospital. I look at the signs and turn in circles and I think the weight of you is throwing off my compass. I don’t know which way is North and which is South. A woman says, “You’ve had a rough day. What can I help you find?”
“I need to leave.”
“Okay. Follow me.”
We walk through a beautiful atrium with arched ceilings and marble floors. Classical music plays from somewhere. She leaves me at the front door. I go outside and sit on a bench and wait for a cab with your belongings beside me. A man sits on the other side of your things. He doesn’t say anything to me, but when I spot a cab and pick up your things, he says, “Have a good day.”
I get into the cab and set you beside me. Your things. Not you. The cab driver twists around and smiles. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
I burst into tears.
It’s around 4 p.m. when I get back to the room. I set your things on the carpet and crumble beside them, bury my face in my hands, and cry.
After a while, I pick myself and open the bags. I open your wallet and sort through the slips of paper you’d tucked inside. You always had this habit of writing everyone’s phone numbers on slips of paper, and here they are now, along with the sheet I gave you after your first stroke, with our phone numbers on speed dial. Your phone tumbles onto the carpet, and I pick it up and scroll through your recent calls.
A history forms. A 4:49 p.m. call with Gl on Friday. A call to 911 at 4:07 p.m. on Saturday. The doctors were wrong, Dad. You didn’t suffer the stroke on Thursday or Friday and sit alone without help until Saturday. It was sometime after your Friday dinner with Gl and the call to 911 on Saturday. The window of pain shrinks a bit, and this time when I cry, it’s with relief.
There are other things in your wallet. A tiny Star of David that I know nothing of but set aside. Forty-five dollars in cash. Your bank card, art-store card, your social security card, Medicaid card. A little drawing by C. All of this I tuck inside the softened pockets of your wallet, and slip it into the bag.
Your shoes, pants, belt, scarf … they all smell so strongly of the hospital I cannot take it. I hold my breath and dig through the pockets. Then I put them back in the bag and tie it tight. I can still smell it from across the room. I can’t tell if it’s in my head or real.
The last thing I find is a cross. I don’t recognize it, but it’s in the bag, so you must have had it on you when you went to the hospital. I slip it over my head, and crawl into bed.
I want to say I don’t cry, Dad, but we both know that isn’t true.
Sometime after 5, I walk down to the river and sit beside the water. The wind is chilly but feels nice on my cheeks. I lift my face, and watch the clouds.
Wednesday, March 22
At midnight, my aunt and uncle arrive. We talk until 2 a.m. Then I give them the bed and take the couch. I’m able to sleep for a few hours.
The next day, they offer to drive me to the funeral home. We sit in a carefully decorated room with yellowed curtains pulled tight over the windows, and the funeral home director—a thin man with a quiet voice—explains the options. I had asked everyone what their opinions were beforehand without telling them what each other had selected, so that everyone would speak from their hearts without influence, and everyone had chosen the same option. This is what I tell the director. He nods and tells me the price. I jot it down in my notebook, payable by cash or check. (Later, I’ll frantically search my purse for a check. I finally find one in my wallet. Just one, but that’s all I need.) The entire time we speak, I sit at the edge of the couch with my back rigid enough that I cannot cry.
On the way out, the director stops me in the hall. I turn around, and he points at the paintings along the wall. “I Googled your dad, because the name is so unusual. He was a real artist.”
I smile. “He really was.”
We go to the church next. The office is bustling, and the music director explains that they have two weddings and a funeral already booked for this Saturday. Then begin the questions.
Were you a member of the church, Dad? No, but you attended mass six times a week for years.
Do I live here? No.
Could I come back in a week? No, it’s expensive to travel here, and I have to get a hotel, and the expenses add up quickly. I’m paying for everything myself, but it’s all so sudden. Could we not do something on Sunday? No, I’ve forgotten about Lent. I’ve forgotten what day it is and where I put my phone and I can’t recall what time B’s plane is supposed to land, though he’s told me over and over again. How mad he is at himself for me being alone but we all thought there was more time, Dad, there was supposed to be a week and really none of us thought that was true. We all thought this would be like last time. That we’d nurse you through physical therapy and months in the hospital, that I would introduce myself to you again and we would learn each other’s histories and habits and hearts anew.
But none of it was like that, Dad. You didn’t forget me at all. In fact, it turned out that my name was the last thing you said.
We leave the church without any details settled. I feel as if I’ve let everyone down, but I cannot explain why.
We pick B up at 11:30 a.m. We stand by the car at the arrival gate and hug, and I don’t care if we’re blocking traffic or annoying people or about to get yelled at by the cop parked on the corner. My aunt and uncle take us to lunch, where they go through everything we have to do now.
Go to probate court to open an estate. Go to the post office to have your mail forwarded. Close your bank account. Go to your apartment and make a list of everything of value for the estate. We’ll need the paperwork. We’ll have to place an ad in the paper and let it run once a week for three weeks or something like that. We should check with the court in PA for the rules. They could be different here. But there are papers to file and rules and regulations and somewhere over my lunch I feel the weight of you welling up in me and I try not to cry into my soup.
I just want to sleep. Or at least lie in a bed in the dark and be free enough to let these tears fall instead of clutching them in my chest so I don’t embarrass myself in a Panera Bread. I never knew dying was so complicated. Grief feels heavy enough without the paperwork.
After lunch, we drive downtown and make our way to the probate court. I repeat what my uncle told me under my breath. I feel like a kid again, unsure of myself and afraid to speak, but I make my way to the desk when I’m called and I shove the words out.
“Hi, my dad’s passed away, and I need to pick up the forms to open his estate.”
“Okay, well, they’re all online.”
“But here, this list has everything you need. These are the fees.” He slides a paper across the desk to me. My eyes flit down the list. “He’s got a house?”
“Credit cards? A bank account?”
“No credit cards. I don’t know how much is in his bank account, but it can’t be over a few hundred dollars.”
“So, what’d you opening an estate for?” he asks.
“I—I don’t know. I thought I had to.”
The man shrugs. “Nope. He doesn’t have anything, so you’re good.” He points at a sign. “Any possessions valued less than five thousand and you don’t have to bother with anything.”
I quickly add up how much your paintings would be worth. They don’t come close to that number.
When we walk outside into the cold, I realize I’m shaking. You always said you wanted things to be simple, Dad. In the end, that’s exactly what happened.
Thursday, March 23
My aunt and uncle leave at dawn. B and I get the first full night of sleep either of us has had in days. I’d averaged two hours this week until last night. As the world wakes around us, we lie in bed and talk in soft voices. We still need to go to the bank and post office, but until we have the death certificates, we can’t. So, we wait.
We talk about what we should do about the church. We can’t stay another week. Every night here is $150. Yesterday, snow flurries fell, and neither of us packed clothes for winter. B’s dad just had a heart procedure a week ago, so his parents can’t travel to us. Mom and C and J are in the South and can’t afford to come to PA.
The realization settles over us. We will have to plan two services.
B and I decide that as much as it bothers us, we cannot make any more plans today. “What do other people do when they’re planning things like this?” I ask him. “What do they do with this in-between time?”
He thinks for a minute. “They sit around the kitchen table with family and tell stories.”
So, we go where there will be stories of you. We drive to your neighborhood, pay to park, and walk to your street. We start at your favorite bar, and even though it’s early afternoon, there are people inside. Smoke hangs in the air, the light is dull, and it is a quintessential bar, only wide enough for a two-person table and a one-person walkway. There’s a juke box in the back and shelves of liquor along the wall. Men in Steelers hats shout at each other over the music from three seats apart. I slip past them, aware of how much of an outsider I am, and find an empty place to sit. But before I even take the seat, I spot it. Straight in front of me on the wall is one of your paintings.
It’s like spotting a piece of you. I shout at B and point. “That’s Dad’s! THAT’S DAD’S!”
Over the next 20 minutes, we meet the owner and the bartender and her husband. Strangers hear our conversations and interrupt us. Everyone knows you, Dad. Everyone has stories of your dancing and your humor and your art, and they all speak with tears in their eyes. They shake my hand and though my eyes water, I don’t cry. I thank them for being a part of your life.
I don’t know what I’m doing or if this is how you’re supposed to spend the time after a loved one passes, but this is all I know to do. I go from shop to shop, to the Italian market where you bought your groceries and the art store where you sold your paintings and the restaurant whose owner has so many of your pieces, and I speak with every one of them. I let them tell me their stories of you. I tear up, but I don’t cry. All of them already know of your passing, even before I explain who I am. A mention of your name is all it takes. The entire neighborhood knows you. The entire neighborhood grieves for you.
And your art is everywhere. Everyone has not one piece but many. They decorate cash registers and hallways. They’re tucked onto shelves beside jars of honey. I see you everywhere, moments of your history, and each time, a pang echoes in my chest. Did you know, Dad, how beloved you are?
Every time I leave a shop and step into the sun, I look at the clouds, but I still haven’t seen what I’m searching for.
Friday, March 24
My chest hurts today, Dad. I’ve cried less, but I think that’s because my heart has finally decided to make room for this new weight I carry. Grief is a curious thing, a burden and a treasure. To carry it inside me means I’ve lost something I valued, and what a lovely thing it is, to have loved you and lost you. But losing you means grieving you, and grief, as it turns out, is a heavy thing. I feel lopsided now, three days into this new beginning. My limbs haven’t yet adjusted to this new reality. One day I’ll wake up and not notice that I’m walking normally again, that I’ve acclimated to this pain and my heart has shifted its contents to grow a room for this grief. But until then, I am wobbly on my feet and sore inside my chest.
Last night, when I could no longer stand the hospital smell seeping from your shoes (which we’d decided to donate), we set them outside next to the door, still in the plastic bag. In the morning when we go to leave, we realize someone has stolen them.
It plunges me into a fit of tears. I stand on the stoop and wail about your shoes and your jeans and your belt. Who would take your things? I sob. Who takes someone’s shoes? B hugs me to his chest and says, “Ash, you already went through that bag. There’s nothing valuable in it. We were donating it.”
“I know, but—”
“Think about it. What would your dad do if somebody asked him for his shoes and they really needed them? If they needed them enough to steal them? What would he do?”
I wipe my eyes. “He’d give them to him.”
But knowing this doesn’t make me feel better.
Today is the day we do things, Dad. We go to the bank to close out your account. We go to the post office to forward your mail. At each place, I show the paperwork I’ve gathered. Your death certificate and the paid bill from the funeral home. My name is on your death certificate, and because I took your last name as my middle name when I got married (as a gesture to you), we share a common thread. Finally, no one questions whether I’m your daughter.
Friday evening, we get the call and go to the funeral home. There’s a visitation taking place, so we slip through the door and make our way to the office, trying our best to stay out of sight. A young woman heads to a back room and returns with two boxes in a green velvet bag. She puts them on a table, opens the bag, and points at two envelopes taped to the top.
“These are really important, so you don’t want to lose them. It’s the permit in case you decide to scatter the cremains.”
Cremains? Is that really what they’re called? I hate all these words, Dad. But then again, I don’t know what else to say. Maybe the problem is that I simply don’t want to use any of them.
I thank her and hesitate. Then I pick up the bag and walk to the car. It doesn’t feel possible, that you are inside these two boxes. I feel detached again, far away, unable to process what’s happening. The boxes are so light and this grief so heavy, and it feels like everything should be the opposite of what it is.
The boxes should be heavy and I should be light. The boxes should be empty and you should be alive.
It is 9 p.m. when your neighbors call. They want to meet, and I put them off, but they call again. “Please,” they say. “We need to see you again.”
B and I get in the car and head back to your neighborhood. We park and go inside a bar, and find a table in the back. For two hours we sit with them as they tell us stories of you. I’m exhausted, but I understand why I must be here. I’m not the only one grieving.
Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, they ask, “Did you get the Star of David?”
I sit up straight. “Yes. It was in Dad’s wallet. Do you know what it means?”
“It was his father’s. He told us his dad used to carry it around, but he couldn’t remember why. It was really special to him, though. I’m glad you have it.”
I was meant to come here tonight, wasn’t I, Dad? To find the answer to this little mystery.
Saturday, March 25
How is it, Dad, that our hearts hold such a thing as grief inside our frail bodies, and still we go on with the business of existing? It has only been days since you passed, and yet, grief feels like a sharp-tipped creature inside my heart. One moment I’m fine, the next, I’ve moved in the wrong way, blinked, heard a snippet of something that triggers a memory, and there it is, stabbing into me. Only time will dull these edges.
Today feels like this. Dull with pain. After B and I settle the arrangements for the service at your church, B and I go to Gl’s house to drop off her half of the cremains. She invites us inside and serves us coffee, and you are everywhere inside her home. Every place on her wall is filled with your paintings. There is a large piece that takes up almost half of an entire wall. It’s a girl sitting on a chair, and the entire painting was done in shades of gold. You did this one during your time at Yale, and I want to take it home and put it in my house so that I can look at it every single day. But it doesn’t belong to me, and Gl is asking me something important.
She wants the cremains to stay together, Dad. As she asks, worry takes root inside my chest. I don’t know what to do. For days now, I’ve tried to navigate the divide that exists between your children’s faiths. Atheist and Catholic and non-denominational Christian and spiritual-without-a-label. That’s why I asked for everyone’s opinions on cremation versus burial without telling them what the others had answered. So that everyone would speak from their hearts. At the time, the answer was unanimous. But what to do now is not.
Gl is a small woman with shoulder-length silver hair and a softness that belies a fierce determination to gain the upper hand. In a way, I admire this about her, the way she’s able to tug the flow of the world to her wishes by manipulating only heartstrings. But I have Mom, C, and J to think about.
As she speaks, I learn that in some ways, Gl always considered you hers. Even now, she says, she was considering “getting back together” with you, though she never let on to you about it. I sit in her living room, surrounded by pieces of you, and remind myself that she is important to you, that you shared a life and years and children together. But you did the same with Mom and all of us. Surely one half of your life is no more important than the other.
When Gl is done, she leans in to better hear my answer, and I try to think of what to say. Your family in the South is expecting half of the cremains. I’ve promised them. I don’t know what to do.
The truth is, your faith was a complicated thing, Dad. You went to mass six days a week but didn’t join the church. You also spent time at a Buddhist monastery and threw the I Ching every day for most of your life. You kept your beliefs close to your heart, fed them with a continued drive to explore new opinions and directions, and raised us outside a church but inside your faith. You left no instructions on what to do when you passed, spoke only in fleeting terms about death, and believed that we should live simply and honestly in every way possible. I cannot reconcile Gl’s request—that your cremains be kept together at the church—alongside C and J and Mom’s desire to scatter their portion. We will have to find it in our hearts to compromise.
This is what I ask Gl to do. I tell her that I respect her faith and her wishes, and I ask gently if she can find a place in her heart for C and J and Mom’s wishes too.
She leans back in her chair and says, “Father P said that it would be okay if you divide them up, because Jesus knows what to do in situations like this.”
I want to touch her hand, but I can’t reach her across the table.
Later, I leave feeling conflicted. I cannot make everyone happy, Dad. All I can do is be as respectful as I can, and hope that it is enough.
There is not a way to end this letter, Dad, and that’s because this is not an ending. It is the beginning of a beginning, of my life without you. I honestly never thought this would come. Your death was an abstract thought, a fleeting breath of truth I never wanted to confront. But time is a wicked thing that always has her way, and once again, she has won.
All week, as I go about the motions of settling your life, I look at the clouds and am disappointed. When I was around twelve, you told me an Irish saying about death. When someone has passed away and you look at the clouds, watch for the sun. When it pours through the parting clouds in long golden beams, it means someone’s soul has been accepted into Heaven. I’ve tried to find this saying and never been able to, so I’ve no idea if you made it up or if I remember it incorrectly. But this is what I remember you telling me. I also know that it’s a silly thing, unprovable, a game of chance and luck to look upward at just the right moment. I cannot explain why I need to see it so badly. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at the clouds whenever I go outside.
It is only when I’ve finally settled all the details and head home that I see it. Somewhere amid the hours of the long drive, the clouds part. The sun pours itself over the road ahead, and guides us home.